Sunday, February 28, 2010

Microattention for Secondary Screens

Think about a desk calendar, the kind that has a clever quote for every day of the year. Now replace it on your desk with a little screen. The little screen not only has the clever quotes, it rotates through other stuff: headlines, stock updates, Twitter, weather, and so on.

You ignore it most of the time, but it’s great for the occasional glance when you’d otherwise be waiting for something to happen on your computer. Or when a conference call meanders. Or when you just have extra microattention, meaning you can keep doing what you’re doing while sneaking a peek, like seeing a billboard as you drive.

Here is a real-world example: On my desk, away from my computer display, I have a Chumby One, a small WiFi device that I can configure via the Web to display various stuff. Across a few minutes, it will show the likes of:

These are widgets like those you’ve seen on computer desktops (Microsoft gadgets, MacOS Dashboard, and so on). I’ve also got Chumby widgets for Twitter, stock prices, and SmugMug’s most popular pictures of the day.

Initially this all may seem like a big time-waster, a weapon of mass distraction. But from my experience, it can be a time-expander, allowing you to do more with the time you have. To understand why, go back to the analogy of seeing billboards on the highway. What if those billboards showed stuff you chose? You would be driving anyway, so anything useful the billboards communicated would be a bonus, if you felt like looking at them.

That last part—your discretion to look or not—is key. It’s why widgets on a peripheral display like a Chumby are a different experience from widgets on your computer’s normal display. If I had the equivalent of my Chumby’s rotating widgets on my computer desktop, they would drive me crazy because they would not be fully ignorable; they would be too much in my field of view. Yet if I hid them—requiring a click or key-press to view them and then another to hide them again—they would not be as effortlessly glanceable as on a peripheral display.

So will Chumbies take over the world? Chumby is a quirky, early entrant in the “connected screens” market, and I wish it/them the best. But a bigger trend is afoot:

  • Small, external USB displays let you sequester desktop widgets to a peripheral screen.
  • Digital photo frames are evolving into connected screens, with content delivered by companies like FrameChannel.
  • Screenphones, while they sit in a dock on your desk or nightstand, are going the same way.
  • Dashboard screens in cars? They are going there too, if you don’t end up using a dashboard-docked phone instead.
  • Next-generation remote controls for TVs will have screenphone-like screens, so count them in.
  • Idle TV screens on walls or, in the farther future, walls that are screens? Yep.

In other words, there will be no shortage of screen devices that can enable good use of your microattention. With ever-falling costs of flat screens, and greater use of microattention, expect to see second, peripheral screens where you already have a main screen, and other screens in what today would be unlikely places.

That said, it is interesting to ask what else screen devices could do to support microattentive uses. On one hand, interactivity is helpful if you want to get more info on something you see (the Chumby One has a touchscreen, and some widgets have touchable controls). On the other hand, interactivity will be an exceptional use case, like stopping the car to learn more about a billboard’s content. In my case, if I see something on the Chumby that I want to know more about, I just Google it on my desktop rather than interacting with the Chumby.

More interesting to me would be a peripheral screen’s having a video camera that can track when my eyes viewed the screen and what I viewed. For example, if a headlines widget eye-tracked the headlines I saw, it could show other headlines on subsequent rotations.

And to those who make the widgets and/or content in them, what new experiences can be had for an audience that consumes your media via a sequence of occasional glances?

My microattention and I will be eager to find out.

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